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When Barack Obama met Narendra Modi: A relook at the ‘odd-couple chemistry’

world Updated: Jan 19, 2017 17:48 IST
Rezaul H Laskar
US President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi driving to the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in the presidential limousine in September 2014.(White House photo)

As US President Barack Obama prepared to sign off, he worked the phones on Wednesday to make farewell calls to world leaders he had worked closely with, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom he had surprised at their first meeting with a greeting in Gujarati.

Since Modi came to power in 2014, the two leaders met at least eight times and forged a working relationship. They also spoke frequently on phone and developed what CNN described as a “striking odd-couple chemistry between the barrel-chested, bear-hugging Modi and his cool, often restrained American counterpart”.

Before their first meeting in September 2014, the two leaders co-authored an op-ed article in The Washington Post that was titled, “Chalen Saath Saath: Forward, we go together”. And when Obama visited India in January 2015, the leaders appeared on a special edition of Modi’s “Mann ki Baat” radio show – the first radio address by a US president and an Indian prime minister.

Obama was the first US president to visit India twice during his presidency, in November 2010 and in January 2015. Modi visited the US four times since assuming office in May 2014.

Here’s a look back at some of their meetings:

September 2014: Obama and Modi met for the first time at the White House when the prime minister travelled to Washington at Obama’s invitation. Obama greeted Modi at the doorstep by saying, “Kem chho?” — the Gujarati equivalent of “How are you?” Modi replied, “Thank you very much, Mr President.”

The two leaders also took a walk together at the National Martin Luther King Memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi take a walk together at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington in September 2014. (Reuters)

January 2015: Obama was the chief guest at the annual Republic Day parade and a day earlier, the two leaders took a stroll in the garden of Hyderabad House for a one-on-one discussion. Modi served tea to Obama, who later used the Hindi words “chai pe charcha” to refer to their discussions. This was also the meeting when eagle-eyed photographers found out that the thin stripes on Modi’s bandh-gala suit had his name spelt out in gold thread.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama hold one-on-one talks over a cup of tea in the garden of Hyderabad House, Delhi in January 2015. (Reuters)

During their joint radio address on “Mann ki Baat”, Modi explained to the audience that the word Barack, in the Swahili language, meant “one who is blessed”.

September 2015: The meeting – the fifth in the calendar year – on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York did not follow the planned sequence. Modi emerged from an elevator and was about to enter the designated meeting room when Obama, coffee cup in hand, called out to him.

President Barack Obama shaking hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at their meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2015. (Reuters)

“You are looking good in white,” Obama commented on Modi’s outfit – a white kurta teamed with a white Modi jacket. Modi replied, “Thank you, Mr President.” They also exchanged a warm embrace before settling down for talks.

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September 2016: Modi and Obama met for the eighth and last time on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit at Vientiane, Laos, when the US president praised the Indian leader’s efforts to reform the economy and pass the GST bill.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama during their meeting on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Laos in September 2016. (PTI)

Modi invited Obama to visit India after he completed his term in January and the president joked that he and his wife were yet to see the Taj Mahal.